News Norms, Indexing and a Unified Government
Reporting during the early stages of a Global War on Terror
David Domke, John S. Hutcheson and Philip A. Garland
- *Corresponding Author:
- Andre Billeaudeaux
University of Washington, School of Communications, Box 353740 Seattle, WA 98195
FAX: (206) 543-9285
PH: (206) 510-9171
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Global Media Journal
A number of journalists and popular commentators have suggested that the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, were defining moments in United States history (e.g.,
Gibbs, 2001a; Morrow, 2001; Zakaria, 2001). The terrorist attacks upon the United
States began an unprecedented level of United States foreign policy news coverage.
This point is highlighted by public opinion data that indicated the “news interest” of U.S.
adults was markedly high in the days, weeks, and months after the terrorist attacks. For
example, well into December 2001 roughly half of randomly sampled U.S. adults
indicated they were “very closely” following news about the September 11 attacks and
subsequent U.S. campaign against terrorism, the highest level of sustained public interest
in the news in more than a decade (Pew, 2001).
President Bush laid out his foreign policy strategy only nine days after the attacks in his
address before the U.S. Congress and a national television audience on September 20,
2001. During this speech, he articulated his administration’s plans for a “war on
terrorism.” Included in his address were claims that the conflict would be lengthy in
duration and would not specifically target Muslims (Bus h, 2001).
Over the next four weeks the President and his top aides routinely and aggressively
emphasized specific and worst-case expectations for a pending global military campaign.
Among the administration’s popularly communicated themes, including tho se mentioned
in his national speech, included the possibility of unfortunate-but-perhaps-unavoidable
civilian deaths, probable U.S. military casualties, the challenges of defining an exit
strategy and the challenge of rebuilding a post war Afghanistan. Indeed, administrationled
discussion on these six topics, referred to as "war themes," appeared 58 times in
Washington Post and New York Times news content between September 12 and October
7, 2001. These numbers, calculated in the days before the actual Afghan military campaign, seem to give validity to what Maltese (1992) and Cook (1998) have termed the
administration “line of the day,” or the ability to control a message, keep it simple and
consistently repeat it (p 135).
These elite communications, manifesting themselves within six distinct themes, are
notable in that they seemed to be a part of a larger executive level strategy to engender
post-September 11 confidence in the administration's wartime leadership and to assuage
potential concerns that the United States and its military was headed toward an
historically unwinnable “quagmire” (e.g. France/U.S. in Vietnam, U.S.S.R. in
Afghanistan) This trend could be called an example of what Manheim (1991, 1994)
termed “strategic political communication;” a practice in which leaders craft their public
language and communications with the goal to create, control, distribute, and use
mediated messages as a political resource. In particular, political elites have become
adept at management of political and news environments (see Domke, Watts, Shah, &
Fan, 1999; Herman, 1993; Pfetsch, 1998; Protess et al., 1991; Watts, Domke, Shah, &
Fan, 1999; Zaller, 1992), a process which seems likely during a national crisis such as the
events and aftermath of September 11, when political leaders expect citizens to look to
them for guidance and vision. This U.S. government's strategic management of the
information was recognized at the height of the Afghanistan military campaign in a
November, 2001 New York Times article:
It is not just information that the Pentagon leadership is keeping under tight control. It is
also expectations…The desire to keep information and expectations at a minimum stems
directly from the experience of the Vietnam War, longtime military reporters and military
historians say. The Johnson administration "oversold greatly the degree of success" of
the war before the Tet offensive in 1968, said Don Oberdorfer, a former diplomatic and
military correspondent for The Washington Post. The unrealistic expectations turned the
Tet battles -- arguably a United States military victory -- into a massive public relations
Exploring the relationship between the administration and the press during the early
stages of the war on terrorism (Sept 12 thru Dec 18) is important in that the mass media,
through their professional norms of objectivity and neutrality (Bennett 1984, Cook 1998),
not only had the potential, but an “institutional” responsibility, to offer counter opinion
and criticism within the realm of a quickly unfolding and aggressive foreign policy.
Timothy Cook in Governing with the News offers support for the theory that newsbeat
journalists can, and often do control elite instigated news by “weaving” in collected
comments and quotes. He argues that this “weaving” process happens even when or if
elite sources restrict journalistic access or attempt to focus attention on more favorable
topics. He reasons that “the news media still has final say over the ultimate product – by
raising other issues, interjecting doubts, questioning motives and seeking out critical
sources for balance.” (Cook 1998)
The level of press responsibility becomes heightened when one considers the relative lack
of critical discourse being offered by Congress who, in support of the Bush
administration’s outlook for the war on terrorism, politically lined up behind the
President. For example, votes by Congress authorizing military action against those
responsible for the September 11 attacks (a joint resolution approved September 14) and
the anti-terrorism USA Patriot Act (signed into law October 26 after roughly a month of
debate in Congress) were overwhelmingly in the administration’s favor: Only one vote
across both houses of Congress was cast against the resolution, and only one senator
voted against the Patriot Act.
This Congressional support is greatly contrasted by that given to President George Bush
Sr. in the 1990 Gulf War. Congressional criticism of President George Bush Sr.’s Gulf
policy became an important theme in reporting only seven weeks into the crisis. New
York Times reporter R. W. Apple, Jr. wrote:
“Congressional criticism of the Bush Administration’s policies in the Persian Gulf,
nonexistent in the first days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, then muted, is growing louder on both sides of the aisle as lawmakers openly attack the President on several
major points.” (NY Times 1990)
Likewise, news media criticism of the Vietnam War emerged only when congressional
sources began to raise doubts about presidential strategies. (Cook 1998)
From the early days following the terrorist attacks through the height of the U.S. military
campaign, the president and his administration enjoyed a unique position with their
substantial level of Congressional and public support that continued on into the military
campaign in Afghanistan (Gallup 2001a). During this same period, the administration
was able to concentrate their messages and war themes in selling the idea of a war on
terrorism to the American people. With the unprecedented speed of moving to an
overseas military campaign, near nonexistent Congressional criticism and the majority of
the country rallying around the flag as a backdrop, the research presented here analyzed a
census of news and editorial coverage of the New York Times and Washington Post between September 11 and the December 18th fall of Kabul, with the goal of examining
the journalistic adherence of Tuchman (1972) and Bennett’s (1990, 1996)
“newsgathering norms.” Specifically, we attempted to discover if there would be
discernable patterns in news coverage relevant to not only Bennett’s (1990) Indexing
theory, but a host of other academic findings that have since constructed new rules and
aspects to Bennett’s original 1990 indexing theory.
The genesis of most studies of media -- government interactions stem from a concern
about the media’s function within the democratic process; assuming the duty of reporting
requires reporting as independently as possible from government sources (Entman et al,
1996). One of the primary findings in political communication research is that official
sources consistently dominate the viewpoints of political stories (Blumler & Gurevitch,
1981; Brown et al., 1987; Sigal, 1973, Bennett 1996). Other findings suggest that
dominance of executive branch sources is more pronounced in national security stories than in the news as a whole (Hallin, Manoff, Weddle, 1990) and that official sources are
able to dictate what is newsworthy (Cohen 1963). Leon Sigal (1973) summarized this
Even when the journalist is in a position to observe an event directly, he
remains reluctant to offer interpretations of his own, preferring instead to
rely on his news sources. For the reporter, in short, most news is not what
has happened, but what someone says has happened.
Bennett (1990, 1996) and Cook (1998) argue that media reliance on officials is firmly
rooted in three types of journalism norms: the professional virtues of objectivity and
balance; the obligation to provide some degree of democratic accountability; and the
economic realities of news business. Tuchman’s (1972) “Objectivity Norm” requires
that journalists present “both sides” of a story. Cook (1998) builds on this argument such
that, through the routine use of these norms, the press has become a political institution.
Bennett (1995) supports Cook’s notion in that the result of the press push to “get an
official reaction” is formally institutionalized among national news organizations that
operate within a news beat system. It is this institutionalized system Bennett says “that
links reporters with officials who are presumed to occupy powerful or authoritative
positions in decision-making or policy-implementation processes.”
Through a consideration of these and other media/press relationships, Bennett
(1990) formulated the theory of indexing:
Mass media news professionals, from the boardroom to the beat, tend to
“index” the range of voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials
according to the range of views expressed in mainstream government
debate about a given topic. (p 106)
Bennett further surmised that "other non-official voices fill out the potential population of
news sources included in news coverage and editorials when these voices express
opinions already emerging in official circles" (p 106); essentially that government elites, not the press, set the range of argument with lesser actors offering viewpoints within this
accepted range. Bennett’s indexing hypothesis appears in a wide body of political
communication scholarship. From the original 1990 indexing theory a number of key
foreign policy studies has emerged that offered further nuances, conditions and limits for
In Zaller and Chiu’s (1996) examination of U.S. news coverage of foreign policy
crisis, they refined indexing theory by providing “narrower” and more “situational rules”
for news trend coverage during foreign policy crisis, or emergency situations. These
situations defined and predicted how journalists wo uld slant foreign policy coverage as
either “hawkish” in favor of aggressive foreign policy action or “dovish” representing a
more cautious approach for foreign policy. These measurements were found to happen at
key points in foreign policy conflicts, leading Zaller and Chiu to hypothesize that the
press indexes its coverage to the views of different actors at different points in a crisis: to
the president at the first emergence of a crisis, to the Congress as events begin to settle
down and to the opinion of non-politicians (such as experts or the public at large), in
cases in which the crisis persists over a long period of time.
Livingston and Eachus (1996) support the notion of indexing theory in news and
editorials particular to news concerning U.S. foreign policy goals and practices. They
further the notion, with comparative case studies, that the press, in a post cold-war
environment without a clearly galvanizing or conceptual foreign policy consensus, has
greater latitude in including once “marginalized” dissident voices or ideas. Further,
studies have shown that dissident voices, when recognized in the news, are
contextualized with symbolic cues that can diminish or bolster their salience or credibility
for news audiences (Entman & Rojecki, 1993; Gitlin, 1980). Bennett (1996) suggests
that “off beat” viewpoints and the introduction of cues about their credibility or
importance suggest the existence of underlying rules or guidelines for making these
symbolic decisions. Marginalization of dissident voices was operationalized in Althaus
et al's (1996) study involving the 1985-86 Libya Crisis. They advanced the notion that some voices were marginalized and others overemphasized via their amount of frontpage
Althaus et al (1996) and Bennett (1996) argued that, under certain conditions,
journalists appear to seek out foreign sources to provide counter opinions to the dominant
U.S. policy position. The authors called this coverage by the press power indexing,
essentially, following the voices of those who are able to control the outcome of a
situation despite the nationality. These results demonstrated much higher levels of
foreign voices than previous indexing studies. Bennett (1996) and Zaller et al (1996)
supported these findings with Bennett offering a follow up journalistic “rule” pursuing a
complex developing story: “follow the trail of power.”
It is our view that in the weeks immediately following September 11, 2001, President
Bush and members of his administration publicly engaged in strategic political
communication to build support both domestically and abroad for the “war on terrorism.”
In doing so, his administration maintained a consistent and aggressive perspective and
public discourse on at least the six “war themes,” themes that are the basis for this study.
The administration, for a variety of reasons, maintained healthy public and Congressional
support through a military buildup and an eventual campaign in Afghanistan. In this
unique communication environment, and with a lack of elite dissident voices in Congress
available to “index,” we propose the following four research questions:
RQ1: Were non-administration (e.g. lesser government official or foreign)
voices carried in the news able to introduce this paper's "war themes" into news
coverage before the administration was able to establish their position.
Our first research question revolves around the original indexing hypothesis (Bennett
1990) that non-official voices are covered only when they express opinions already
emerging in official circles. With the high level of bi-partisanship for the war on
terrorism fostering “one-sided” discourse among U.S. government elites, the news media would have few alternative viewpoints to choose from within official U.S. circles. U.S.
government debate was markedly similar to the early stages of the Gulf War build-up
when official sources were largely in agreement about deployment of U.S. troops to
Kuwait (see Zaller, 1994a). As a result, journalists who follow the established routine of
“indexing” their coverage and language to that of U.S. elites, under classic indexing,
would have little choice but to adopt the range of voices offered.
Several scholars (e.g. Bloom, 1990; Cottam & Cottam, 2001; Hutchinson, 1994;
Niebuhr, 1967) highlight the ability and motivation or U.S. government leaders to
manipulate national discourse and symbols in order to engender and mobilize support
among the mass public for specific political goals. Further, some scholars (Bloom, 1990;
Calabrese & Burke, 1992; Deutch & Merritt, 1965 and Zaller, 1994) theorize that elites
exert their greatest influence over news coverage and, ultimately, public opinion during
moments of crisis when greater-than-usual numbers of citizens pay attention to politics
and news coverage. It would seem reasonable then, at the early stages of mobilizing
support for the “war on terror” Americans would look to the President and his
administration for leadership early in the crisis with lesser elites gaining voices as the
crisis becomes routine. With the unprecedented support of Congress through the Afghan
military campaign, it becomes an important point of theoretical departure to investigate
which news group would follow the President in Zaller’s hybrid (1996) indexing
RQ2: How closely will news coverage of the war on terrorism follow Zaller’s
(1996)indexing-influenced hypothesis that the president will be featured primarily
at the emergence of a crisis followed by Congress and finally to the opinion of
Bennett (1994) found that even though the news media covered dissenting congressional
opinions of George Bush Sr.'s Gulf War buildup, White House positions received the
most prominent news displays even at the height of debate. As the president is the central
newsmaker in American politics today (Cook 1994) it would make sense to find the
majority of front-page news featuring him and his administration. But, without Congress offering critical voices, the press is forced to find other voices to index. And, in an
environment of nationalistic reporting following the terrorist attacks (Hutcheson, Domke,
Billeaudeaux and Garland, 2002), the relative placement of dissident voices within news
coverage becomes increasingly worthy of study. Thus, our third research question:
RQ3: What level of prominence was given to foreign/dissident voices in front page
war on terrorism news coverage?
Althaus et al (1996) and Bennett (1996) further refined indexing theory by
arguing that when a political situation arises that is not easily solved by domestic elites,
journalists will seek out players in other contexts that appear to be shaping the outcomes;
thus perceptions of power a key factor in a journalist's decisions to seek out alternative
sources. With the international scope of the war on terror context, understanding the
relationships between journalists and foreign voices becomes key, thus, our final research
RQ4: Will there be evidence of "power" indexing, through the use of foreign
sources, in coverage of the war on terrorism?
The purpose of this study is two- fold. First: is to identify emergent and consistent
war themes discussed and attributed to the President and his top advisers in the weeks
following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Second, we explore whether this
communication was followed by discernible patterns along the same themes in news
coverage by a variety of lesser government officials, journalists and a variety of foreign
To study these strategies, we content analyzed a census of news coverage in the New York Times from September 12 to December 18, 2001. These dates incorporate
three specific and important periods within the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
From the terrorist strikes through October 7th, 2001 we call the “selling of the war” phase.
The period encompassing October 8th thru November 9th represents the start of the
military campaign through the defeat of the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif, a key battle that
represented the first significant U.S. military led victory in the campaign. We call this the “fighting” phase. And our final phase, from November 10th thru December 18th we
call our “victory” phase as the Taliban presented little military resistance during this
For this analysis, the coders read all news coverage in the front section and
dedicated “war on terrorism” sections that ran daily beginning in late September, as well
as editorials and op-ed pieces.
In undertaking this analysis, we adopted the approach of using the source as the
unit of analysis, rather than the story. We did this because we were interested in (a)
identifying the specific sources within and outside the Bush administration that might
have been presented engaged in our “themed” discourse and (b) systematically
distinguishing the valence — i.e., directionality — of language used by the sources
measured against that used by Bush administration sources. This approach allowed for
examination of whether sources appeared to support, criticize or simply reflect upon the
administration’s public “wartime” stance. To be specific, as explained below we were
interested in what potential challenges to the war on terrorism were discussed in news
content, who was talking about them, when the challenges were discussed, and how they
were discussed. Only sources that discussed at least one of the pre- identified challenges
to the military campaign were coded. Each source quoted or paraphrased was coded
separately, and the entirety of each source’s statements in an article was taken into
account when applying the coding categories.
Several source categories were identified in the broader project of which this
research is part, including a range of U.S. sources, foreign sources, and journalists
themselves. In this study we focus on three source categories:
• Bush administration leaders: This category consisted of comments in news
content by President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld, and Attorney General John Ashcroft;
• Other U.S. government or military: This category consisted of comments in
news content by any other federal government or military spokesperson such as a
Congress member or U.S. Army spokesperson;
• Other U.S. quoted sources: This category consisted of comments in news
content by non-government American leaders and regular civilians.
• Foreign Source: This category consisted of comments in news content by
foreign voices. This category was broken down among Allies (Great Britain, Saudi
Arabia), enemy (Taliban), neutral (Afghan/Iraq civilian) or United Nations
The content analysis focused on source discussion of six distinct “challenges or
concerns” about the U.S. military campaign. These six were selected because they
emerged in the Bush administration’s public discourse between September 11 and
October 7. Specifically, sources were coded for the presence and accompanying valence
of comments and language measured against the administration’s position of the six (U.S.
casualties, Afghan Civilian Deaths, War on Islam, Duration of War, Exit Strategy and
Rebuilding of Afghanistan) themed topics related to the U.S. military campaign. The
administration’s stance is always considered a 4.
Sources were coded as “1” on the variable if they were explicitly critical about the
theme or administration’s stance on the theme; as “2” if they expressed concern or
questions about potential/actual theme or the administration’s discussion of the theme; as
“3” if they neutrally presented factual information about potential/actual theme or the
administration’s discussion of the theme; and “4” if they were explicitly supportive or
positive about potential/actual theme or the administration’s discussion of this subject.
Sources who did not mention potential/actual loss of U.S. life or the administration’s
discussion of this subject did not receive a code on this variable.
For instance if a Taliban source was quoted: “It will be an American bloodbath if
they attack,” that source (coded as foreign/enemy) would receive a 1 (critical) as it countered the administration’s established stance that the U.S. military campaign would
require sacrifice but, that it was necessary to rid the world of evil.
Three people conducted, two masters and graduating BS student, the content
analysis coding. As a check of the inter-coder reliability, a fourth coder coded a selection
of 33 articles, which included 83 coded sources. For the source coding, this coder agreed
on 76 of 83 codings, yielding a .92 reliability coefficient. For the six “war challenges”
variables, all of which had the same coding scheme, this coder agreed on 445 of 498
codings, yielding a .89 reliability coefficient. In the case of disagreements, codings were
assigned after a re-reading of the article. There were a total of 1336 sources coded
between the Washington Post and New York Times.
In order to establish a foundation to examine theoretically driven indexing arguments, we
located common themes within the war on terrorism news discourse. From this point,
news sources were compared in relation to these common war themes. We first examine
the patterns that George Bush and his administration established in the “selling of the
war” phase. This figure is important in that it represents the administration's redundant
themes, what academics Maltese (1992) and Cook (1998) have termed the
administration’s “line of the day,” or the ability to control a message, keep it simple and
consistently repeat it. The most discussed category by the administration was the
potential duration of the military campaign (24 times over 15 separate days), followed by
Afghan civilian deaths (9 times over 6 days), war on Islam (9 times over 5 days), U.S.
casualties (7 times over 5 days), U.S. exit strategy (5 times over 4 days) and Rebuilding
of Afghanistan (4 times over 4 days). Further, President Bush was the primary
administration source publicly discussing these concerns during these days: He was
present 25 times, compared to a total of 11 appearances by his top aides (Colin Powell,
Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft) and 21 by other government/military officials.
Table 1 about here
Table 1: Discourse in News Content by U.S. Government and Military Leaders
About Potential Challenges of “War on Terrorism,” September 11-October 7, 2002
We also were interested in how consistently these challenges were addressed — ranging
from rarely to occasionally to most days — by the Bush administration during this nearly
month- long prelude to the U.S. military campaign. To examine this, we constructed a
variable that indicated the daily sum of challenges addressed by the President, his top
aides, and other U.S. government and military leaders. We then plotted this variable on a
daily basis from September 12 through October 7 (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 about here
From here, we examine our first research question; RQ1, Were non-elite officials
or foreign voices carried in the news and editorials able to introduce war themes into
news coverage before the administration established discourse or position? To answer
this question, we provide six tables covering each of the six war themes. According to
the original indexing theory (Bennett, 1990), we would expect to find the administration
establishing the range of debate from which lesser elites would be expected to derive
circles of discussion. But our range of debate does not set up within a “traditional”
context as official-level debate was experiencing an unprecedented level of bipartisanship.
Nonetheless, our data demonstrate, on five of six of the themes the
President and administration were first to set the range of debate within all U.S.
government sources reaching the ne ws. In an interesting representation of non-official
voices carrying a role that might have once been reserved for Congress, the “other” U.S.
sources category beat the administration to news coverage in discussing the potential for
Afghan civilian deaths, the potential for a war on Islam, U.S. military casualties and the
rebuilding of Afghanistan. Additionally, in two of the six categories, the administration
followed the lead of foreign sources; that of rebuilding Afghanistan and Afghan civilian
Figure 1: Sum of Discourse in News Content by U.S. Government and Military Leaders
About Potential Challenges of “War on Terrorism,”
Plotted Daily for September 11-October 7, 2002
Graphs 1 through 6 about here
Our second research question is measured over the entire period of the “selling of
the war” phase through to the “victory” phase. A key issue here is how news is indexed
after once a crisis is turned into a routine and reporters look to fill the next day’s news
hole (Bennett, 1984; Cook, 1998). Many academics place initial leadership for foreign policy crisis and accompanying news coverage squarely in the lap of the president, but of
interest to this study is how coverage plays out when dissident voices are not coming
from official sources, a question that leads us to research Zaller’s (1996) hypothesis.
RQ2: How closely will war on terrorism news coverage follow Zaller’s (1996) indexinginfluenced
hypothesis that the president will be featured primarily at the emergence of a
crisis followed by Congress and finally to the opinion of non-politicians.
Indeed, the initial prediction made in RQ2, that the president will be featured primarily a
the emergence of a crisis is easily seen in Table 2, with the expected drop off happening
through the “fighting” and “victory” phases. With the lack of indexing available at the
Congressional level to fill out Zaller’s model, we identify “fighting” phase percentage
jumps of “other U.S. government/military” and “foreign” news sources as being the
primary news sources during this period. The president and “non-government U.S.
sources,” on the other hand, fall significantly in coverage during this period. During the
“victory” phase (November 10th though December 18th) the presidential coverage
continues to fall as expected, but the opinion of non-politicians, the expected news filler
at this point, also falls. Gains among the president’s top aids and “other U.S.
government/military” are notable during this phase.
Table 2: Source distribution by dates of analysis
Insert Table 2 about here
We can see by the large cross-phase representations in Table 2 that “foreign”
voices make up a substantial amount of news coverage. A similar finding of “dissident”
voices by Livingston and Eachus (1996) posit that the press, in a post cold-war
environment without a clearly galvanizing or conceptual foreign policy consensus, has
greater latitude in including once “marginalized” dissident voices or ideas – an idea
contrary to traditional indexing. Certainly not all of the foreign voices in our study
represent dissident voices, quite the contrary. But with this unusually large number of
“foreign” voices present, it becomes important to see how coverage compares to that of
U.S. elites, hence our third question:
RQ3: What level of prominence was given to foreign/dissident voices in front page war
on terrorism news coverage?
To be sure, our numbers, like those of Bennett (1984) and Cook (1998) suggest that
indeed the president and his administration should receive the most salient coverage
during the “selling of the war phase” with nearly 45% of presidential news appearing on
the front pages with foreign voices finding the front pages 26.4% of the time and nongovernment
sources taking the least with 17.6%. Looking at the this phase is important
in that it is most likely to represent the rally-round-the- flag effect (Hallin, 1989) that
would marginalize foreign voices, but the indexing argument could find support in that
37.7% of “other U.S. government/military” voices found their way onto the front pages –
offering a potential “range” of elite voices, albeit all positive toward the prevailing
Insert Cross Tab 1 about here
In contrast to findings of which voices are marginalized, it is important to consider our
last research question dealing in power:
RQ4: Will there be evidence of "power" indexing, through the use of foreign sources, in
coverage of the war on terrorism?
This dynamic plays out very significantly in the data. Surely, the early stages of the “war
on terror” contained many key foreign players, persons in power who could make the war
much more difficult for the United States (e.g. the Taliban’s Supreme Leader Mullah
Mohammed Omar) or much easier (e.g. Tony Blair British Prime Minister, Pakistan’s
Gen. Pervez Musharraf). In these roles, they certainly fall into Bennett’s 1996 journalism
rule of “following the trail of power.” Certainly the findings and associated tables of
RQ2 hold support along this line of reason in that foreign sources on two of the six war
themes found U.S. news voices before those of the administration. The findings and
associated tables of RQ3 also give support to this “rule” in that, even during the height of
patriotism in the days prior to a military campaign more that one quarter of foreign voiced news found its way to front pages. Additionally, in looking at Table 3, we can see
that foreign ally sources dominated coverage across all three phases as compared to the
voices of the foreign enemy – essentially giving those voices with “power” (i.e.
American allies such as Blair) decisional voices in the American press over those who
wouldn’t make a difference in U.S. foreign policy.
Table 3: Source distribution by dates of analysis, with foreign sources broken out
Insert Table 3 about here
That the communication about impending war engendered public confidence in
government and military leadership is certainly suggested by public opinion polls in the
weeks and months after September 11 that indicated high levels of approval for President
Bush (Gallup 2001a), high levels of support for the U.S. military campaign against
terrorism (Gallup, 2001a), and a willingness among the American public to commit to the
military campaign even if it meant significant U.S. casualties (Gallup, 2001b). The goal
of this paper was to examine news coverage of the “war on terror” with respect to the
varied and supplemental aspects deriving from (and including) Bennett’s 1990
“indexing” hypothesis within the New York Times and Washington Post. To justify our
use of newspapers for our study, given that few Americans generate their daily news
information from them, we argue that the prestige press, particularly the New York
Times, likely builds the agenda for many of the nation’s other mass media outlets. This
work becomes especially noteworthy due to the significant backdrop of post 9/11 cultural
cohesiveness, patriotism, political bi-partisanship and the potential for a media-driven
“rally around the flag effect.” How would indexing arguments hold up under this, the
latest political crisis?
First, it was apparent that, as Bennett predicted in (1990), the president and his
administration indeed set the boundaries and circles of discourse among all lesser or nonelite
government sources. Yet at the same time foreign (2 of 6) and other U.S. sources (4
of 6) were present in news and editorial coverage before the administration was able to
generate discourse. This news was generated in an atmosphere where not only
government, but also social elites and academics offered very few diverse or conflicting
elite governmental viewpoints from which news media could “index” their news coverage. This in an interesting finding given that historically and theoretically (Bennett,
1996), we would have expected some level of Congressional dissent and debate to be
present effectively nullifying the early collection of “lesser” voices that appeared.
Notable here are the parallels between post September 11 findings and those of Althaus et
al (1996) in that their indexing-based findings were also culled at a time of relatively low
Congressional opposition to the Regan administration’s desire to bomb Libya. In our
findings, Tuchman’s norm of objectivity, that journalists seek opposing views, seemed to
Our second research question is guided by Zaller’s (1996) hypothesis that news
coverage will primarily feature the president at the emergence of a crisis followed by
Congress and finally to the opinion of non-politicians. Our findings did supported the
first portion of this hypothesis that the president would be featured primarily at the
beginning of a foreign policy crisis, but certainly, without Congressional debate to fill in
the second portion, journalists were forced to look elsewhere. An issue to consider here is
that, through early November 2001, the president had not scored a measurable battlefield
victory in Afghanistan. This issue is reflected in public opinion data through early
November that indicated only 27 percent of U.S. adults were “very satisfied” with the
U.S. military campaign’s progress, and a full 18 percent expressed dissatisfaction
(Gallup, 2001) – certainly a condition worthy of note in that it could have launched
extensive Congressional debate.
A notable consideration here is a postulation made by Bennett (1994) that, when
official opinion is not focused or is scattered, it would be expected that routine
journalistic process, or newsbeats, would decrease as well. Essentially, chaos introduced
at the official level would cripple the “familiar official narrative structure.” But, it would
seem this same newsbeat chaos manifests itself in the condition we see when testing
RQ2, that being one of almost no-chaos at the official opinion level – indeed, quite the
opposite. This issue, according to our findings (when measured against Zaller’s 1996
offerings) does, in effect, force news-beat journalists to look elsewhere thus, allowing for
“non-standard” narratives to be introduced into the process much earlier than would have
been expected. But, considering the charged political atmosphere, one must consider
choices the media had at this juncture. Political communication research has found that news reporting exercises caution to avoid violation of often unspoken but assumed
political taboos (Chomsky, 1985; Herman & Chomsky; Rachlin, 1988). This very
domestic news “taboo” issue was tested on September 17th, via Bill Maher’s comment on
his ABC television program “Politically Incorrect.” He stated that the Clinton
administration’s approach of long-range bombing had been a “cowardly” response to
previous terrorist attacks. This comment prompted staunch criticism, loss of major
advertisers, and denunciation from the White House (“After the attack,” 2001). This
representation of a dissident voice is certainly extreme, but, when looked at as a domestic
“muffler,” it might help explain the very high levels of “foreign” voices present
throughout the period of analysis. In other words, the lack of availability of countering
domestic viewpoints, perhaps due to revitalized cultural patriotism, likely lead journalists
to index foreign oppositional voices to fill this model.
In finding foreign substitutes, it becomes important to look at which foreign
voices were being allowed into discourse. We found that foreign allies were featured
much more often that those of the foreign enemy. Both groups, nonetheless, received far
less front-page coverage than that of U.S. sources. In this respect, through RQ3, we find
further validation of Livingston and Eachus’ (1996) marginalization measure is in effect
here. Across all front-page conditions, both regular and special section, foreign enemy
sources were carried in a front-page story only 5% of the time. Moreover, by the
measure of marginalization suggested, we would also assume these voices carried far less
situational influence as well. We can see that in the “victory phase” (November 10th
through December 18th), when the enemy was retreating and less organized, coverage
(from among the 5% total) of enemy sources was only 1.0%, down from a relatively
robust 8.2% in the previous phase (October 8th through November 10th).
Bennett (1996) suggested that political views derived from opinion polls, interest
organizations, social movements or protest groups, may or may not get reported.
Whether or not these sources appear is based less on the mere existence of such views
than on journalistic judgments about their political legitimacy or their impact on decision
makers. It was this type of finding that led Althaus et al (1996), Bennett (1996) and
Zaller (1996) to suggest that journalists appear to be “power” indexing, or providing a
range of foreign policy debate among those, foreign or domestic sources, that maintain some influence upon a decision. Additionally, “power” indexing seems to support
Communications scholar Grace Ferrari Levine’s (1977) findings that show the more
power sources have, the more likely they are to be shown as making events happen and
thus, arguably, more newsworthy. Contrastingly relatively powerless sources are
portrayed as victims where events have happened to them.
This study endeavored to investigate how the indexing theory and its follow up findings
would work within news coverage gathered from thousands of news stories featured
during the first tumultuous weeks preceding and into the war on terrorism. The patriotic
zeal and determination demonstrated by most Americans in the autumn of 2001 hadn’t
been experienced in this country since the weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor in 1941 – a war most Americans know only from stories or movies. Arguably,
these conditions offered a most unique position from which to investigate how, when and
where a myriad of mediated voices would ultimately find themselves within the elite
media’s foreign policy discourse.
Some of our findings, such as early and dominant presidential coverage, easily met the
expectations offered by indexing theory, while others did not. Without dissident
Congressional voices or much if any official debate journalists scrambled to meet their
news norm of objectivity. We found lesser elites and foreign voices filling this
objectivity hole in the resultant news void. But these “other” voices, when featured, were
unlikely to see front-page coverage and, as their ability to make a difference in U.S.
foreign policy was reduced, so too was their opportunity to break into U.S. news
coverage at all. Although findings to our research questions remain interesting, the
authors of this study believe it is important to remember the rallying, nationalistic public
and governmental atmosphere that was operating during this period. This atmosphere,
we argue, could have muffled potential dissident voices available to journalists (e.g.
spiral of silence or fear) as much keeping journalists themselves, concerned for their
careers, far from any taboo, controversial or nationalistic issues. Certainly hypothesizing about nationalism in regard to indexing theory was not the goal of this work, but does
offer an interesting variable to keep in mind when looking at these results.
The war on terror has eclipsed its first anniversary and the administration is, as
this paper is being written, setting its military sights on Iraq. But, unlike the campaign
against the Taliban, Congressional dissent and criticism exists. It is the goal of at least
one of the authors of this paper to conduct a follow up comparative analysis that will
include the current, more controversial period of the war on terrorism, conditions well
suited to the practice of traditional indexing.
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